It is the most valuable gemstone in the world. Christie’s auction house in Hong Kong sold an emerald color necklace consisting of 27 jade beads that ranged in size from 15.09 to 15.84 millimeters, all made from the same piece of rough jade, in 1997 for $9.3 million. The cut came from about one kilogram of a larger jade rock aptly called the ‘Doubly Fortunate’ boulder. Every time it was cut the family that owned it doubled their fortune.
Hong Kong is the place where fortunes in jade are turned over while mainland China, now likely the richest consumer nation in the world, is where jade is most coveted. True jade or jadeite brings the highest prices at auction. Christie’s Hong Kong sold a jadeite bangle with a 49.50 millimeter interior diameter, 8.36 millimeters thick, in 1999 for $2,576,000. Matched jade hoops and cabochons with rose cut diamonds from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) sold for $1.55 million in 1997 through the same auction house in Hong Kong.
“They sell this to tourists in India,” Mary Louise Ridinger said. She held up a bead necklace of aventurine quartz. “This stuff is sold on the streets of Antigua. It is not jade.” Mary Lou is a tall Texan. She has spent 40 years of her life in Guatemala gathering and operating Jade Maya, one of the world’s most extraordinary jade factories in the mountain city that once was the Spanish colonial capital of Guatemala.
Mary Lou and Jade Maya’s General Manager Raquel Perez have led the crusade for jade justice from the Zacapa mountains to Beijing. It has not been an easy task with many perils along the way. Exhausted after a marathon trip to China and a 48-hour trip home to Antigua, Mary Lou embraced Raquel with the good news that some Chinese jade experts are beginning to listen to her.
There are only two places in the world where jadeite, true jade, is found in any quantity. Burma, now Myanmar, and Guatemala. While some jadeite exists in Japan and Russia, where mining conditions are precarious, only in Myanmar and Guatemala can true jade be found. Xinxiang province has been picked clean of large commercial deposits by the Chinese to the point where its Khotan area jade fields resemble moonscapes.
“A hundred million dollars worth of Guatemalan jade has been illegally shipped into Taiwan,” Mary Lou said. “After your newspaper article broke the story I was on a Guatemalan television program. I said $100 million in Guatemala jade was illegally smuggled into Taiwan. Two weeks later the President of Guatemala and four of his ministers were invited to Taiwan. They were wined and dined in Taiwan. They came back with a package of $100 million that will be spent in Guatemala. Marcos Wang, a Taiwanese is still not in jail. He is a principal jade smuggler. He is paying off not to go to jail and is still illegally exporting jade stolen from our licensed areas.”
This tall Texan pulls no punches. All she needs to better make her point is a Stetson, cowboy boots and a six-shooter. Her long blonde hair, green eyes and clear manner make her one dude the Chinese do not want to cross.
A trained archaeologist, Mary Lou came to Guatemala with her husband Jay Ridinger in 1974. They probed the jungles looking for lost Maya jade quarries. Guatemala in those days was akin to what one might imagine from Indiana Jones movies. Wild and woolly. It still is, with narco-trafficking and upwards of 5,000 murders in the streets every year. Despite progress it seems that anything can be had for a price and laws are evaded by bribery at every level.
Forty years later, several years after her husband’s death, Mary Lou continues the struggle for jade justice. She respects the Stone of Heaven with the same reverence ancient Mayans had for it. It is valuable as a symbol of life, eternity, good luck and prosperity. Jade Maya only surface gathers the stones. They refuse to use excavating machines to dig the land. Farmers grow their corn on land where jade is gathered.
“You will see from these photographs that the illegal jade smugglers have used machinery to dig up jade in our licensed areas,” Raquel Perez said. She produced photographic evidence the team made of damage where the illegal activity took place.
The two women organized clandestine surveillance of Marcos Wang’s jade smuggling operation. Relays of drivers followed a truck loaded with stolen jade to a warehouse. When operatives observed a truck leaving for Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala’s new and modern Pacific coast container port, they contacted a high ranking government official.
The operation to apprehend the jade smuggler resulted in Environmental Police being dispatched only to be confronted by the truck driver threatening the police with arrest for stopping his truck. That is how bold Guatemalan jade smuggling operations are. Assured of protection from police and the judicial system, smugglers have taken load after load of unlicensed jade to Puerto Quetzal and, according to Mary Lou and Raquel, through bribery, illegally exported it to China.
The ranking Guatemalan official was contacted by his police on the scene and told of the dilemma. They had not opened the smuggler’s truck awaiting his instructions. The government official came to the scene and forced the large truck’s doors open. It revealed the illegal cargo of jade. The driver was arrested.
“The local judge dismissed the charges. There is bribery everywhere,” Mary Lou said angrily. Eventually the charges were reinstated and Mary Lou and Raquel courageously filed a ‘Denuncia Verbal’ or complaint with the public prosecutor against Marcos Wang.
“Nobody knows where he is. His daughter is involved. The driver was convicted. Small fish. Marcos is still operating. Guatemala does not want to embarrass Taiwan right now and Taiwan paid them off with $100 million for road building and other projects.” Talk like that in Guatemala takes guts. People have been gunned down for far less. Visible as she is with a six-foot frame, her son Jake, the chief miner in the family, is even more visible. He is 6′ 8″ tall. A veritable giant in a country of diminutive people.
Mary Lou ventured twice within a month to China. She lectured about Guatemala jade, Mayan culture and the jade tradition in Jinan, Pingzhou, Shen Zhen, Shanghai and Beijing.
“I wanted to meet with people that certify jade in China. They have their own standards of rating jade. Some they certify is not jade but they pass it since it meets some of their tests. I gave them the Guatemala standards. When I gave my science talk the top jade evaluator’s mouth dropped open. I went to the main jade auction in China. There is a jade auction five times a month. The Chinese do not accept testing labs we use like the Gemological Institute of America and the Hong Kong Gems Laboratory. I met Mimi Ou Yang, head of China’s jade testing lab. I sent her our jade to test. It all passed their tests.”
Getting Chinese to fully accept Guatemala jadeite is a new undertaking for Mary Lou and Raquel. In the past illegally smuggled jade landed in Taiwan where it was re-exported to the mainland and mixed with other stones at many Chinese carving factories.
“In the 1700’s, during the Ching dynasty, one emperor threw out six thousand years of history. He didn’t want traditional nephrite jade, only Burmese jadeite. It’s not hard to sell Guatemala’s Mayan jade. It is called marketing. I spent 40 years of my life in Guatemala to get clients to buy something they had never heard of and said they didn’t have. The Chinese have their own terminology and think they only want emerald green jade. To me Jade is much more than that,” Mary Lou said.
Their plan is to legally open a Guatemalan jade market in China. “China is not going to buy Guatemalan finished products. They have their own factories and their own styles. All our GIA certificates count for nothing in China. They have to test it. All our tests came out positive.”
Mary Lou met a Chinese jade expert, Hua Jie Wang, on her most recent trip to China. Ms. Hua invited her to lunch at a Beijing movie studio.
While the meeting seemed unusual it was serendipity again. A meeting was arranged to meet Chen Tao Chen. “Chen is a media guy. He hired Ms. Hua to set up VIP clubs for Chinese millionaires to invest in jade. People in China invest in jade,” Mary Lou explained.
“Mr. Chen wanted Ms. Hua to set up viewing of Guatemala jade. One thing about me, I’m very hyperactive. To sit at meetings and long business luncheons is hard for me…” The result was the creation of a Hong Kong based company established by Jade Maya and Chinese counterparts.
“We set up the company under Hong Kong law, opened a bank account and signed an agreement. Now we have to write up a ten-year business plan to do correct jade mining in Guatemala. The people that will work it here will be Guatemalans. The operation will be environmentally friendly. We will work closely with the local community on social projects. China has a long cultural mythology with jade. They are going to get the kind of jade they want and market it the way they want. We will control the mining in Guatemala. My son Jake is our most important jade miner,” Mary Lou said.
It was her 68th birthday party. Jake presented his mother with a green jade pendant he carved for her. Her daughter likewise presented her mother with jade jewelry. Her grandson Chris was in the factory turning out ten pairs of jade chopsticks on deadline for Chinese contacts.
A real Guatemalan birthday party was being thrown for Mary Lou, pinata included. It was celebrated with her workers in the garden of Jade Maya’s factory in Antigua. A tower of brightly colored cupcakes, decorated in different jade colors was served for dessert. “Ahhh, now I can have my jade and eat it too,” Mary Lou exclaimed. She blew out the candles on her cake, licked icing off her fingers and enjoyed the glory of her 68th year and small triumph after 40 years in the jade business in Guatemala.
“A lot of people in China know who I am. The little illegal exporters here are coming to us now. They want to buy from us and export jade legally. The big exporters of illegal jade are narcos. They are narcotic traffickers. They have too much money for me to fight them. Would the U.S., Canada, or México let narco traffickers steal all their jade? What kind of country is Guatemala where the police say they are afraid to go in and stop it for fear they will be shot.” With that Mary Lou bit into a huge chunk of her birthday cake, oblivious to fear.
It is not a bright picture Mary Louise Ridinger paints of jade trafficking in Guatemala and China. She, along with Jade Maya’s General Manager Raquel Perez, has undertaken to correct it. Two courageous women fighting for one nation’s heritage with another’s passion.
See Part I of the Investigative Series: Chinese Jade Smuggling